Sam Northeast and a surreal Kent rendezvous

Sam Northeast is not one for hyperbole or emotion. He does not believe in fairytales, or “storylines” that some of us on this side of the laptop indulge to squeeze out those extra hints of drama from sport. As a captain, he took to wearing sunglasses at the toss so that he would give nothing away, like a poker player at a high-stakes table. He also carried an understated ruthlessness that meant he had little sympathy for players who complained of broken fingers, sighting the example of former South Africa captain Graeme Smith, who walked out to face Mitchell Johnson in a Test match with a broken hand. However, a recent busted digit, which kept Northeast out of action for two months this summer, has softened that stance. “Now I get it,” he cedes.

So as obvious as the question may seem – “Does it feel surreal having spent years building a Kent team for white ball success, only for them to eventually make the final and you’re playing for the opposition?” – it is one worth asking. “Of course it does!” answers Northeast.

It is, arguably, through a desire to push Kent on to that next level that now sees him lining up against them in Hampshire colours for Saturday’s Royal London Cup Final. In November of last year, some home truths to the cricket committee of his boyhood club and a reluctance to extend his contract beyond 2018 if those issues not addressed saw him pushed to move on.

Moving on was not easy. When Hampshire offered the 28-year old a four-year contract, Kent were unwilling to let the deal go through at first because they did not want to be stung by him during the early stages of the One-Day Cup and T20 Blast. A transfer fee softened their stance. For this first encounter to be in a final is enough to draw the emotion out of Northeast. He was a member of the squad when they last contested a Lord’s final, back in 2008.

“You put in so much time and effort with Kent, trying to lead and get it all right and everything. Then to move and meet them in the final. It’s strange,” he tells Cricbuzz. “Obviously, that was the goal, you know? To win a white ball competition and try and build something there for a while. To build a bit of a dynasty and help Kent get back up to the top.”

Northeast threw everything into the captaincy. Time not spent focussed on the daily grind was used for plotting. For planning routes to these showpiece finals. For shifting budgets around to accommodate potential signings. For seeing who and where he could call in a favour in order to draft in players to push them on.

It was, for example, a solid relationship with former Essex and England cricketer Derek Pringle that set up a deal to bring Pakistan legspinner Yasir Shah to the club in 2017. Northeast also personally enlisted the help of data analysts to see what kind of edge he could garner, particularly in Twenty20 cricket. Alas, despite a string of impressive performances, Kent never made it to a semi-final of either white ball competition under Northeast’s leadership.

“Looking back on all the quarter-finals, we didn’t play as well as we had done in the groups. That was that, really. The T20 when we drew against Lancashire in 2015 [Lancashire progressed having lost fewer wickets], that was probably the one that got away.

“We finished top of the South Group and then we got to the quarter and drew that. I think if we got through – bear in mind Lancs went on and won it – we’d have had a really good chance. It felt like the year for us, then we also lost to Surrey in the Royal London quarter-final that year. It affects you. You start thinking, ‘What is it? Is it mentality more than skill?’ That T20 was probably the one that felt like a big missed opportunity.”

“As a captain when you’re knocked out of competitions, you always take that very personally. You’re constantly thinking about how you could have done things a bit differently, what we could have done. You’re already thinking about the next campaign.”

Does he miss it? Being relied upon in that manner? Working to mould a young, homegrown side and the satisfaction that can bring? “Not really,” he answers. “It’s definitely not something I crave at the moment. After doing it for over three years, it begins to wear you down.”

If Northeast does carry a smidge of ill-feeling, it is not for the dressing room – “you’d have to ask them really if they enjoy me being away or not!”- nor for head coach Matt Walker who he accepts, when Northeast’s relationship with the club’s hierarchy started to sour, had to oblige requests from above to strip Northeast of the captaincy in January of this year. Sam Billings was installed as the new skipper and, soon after, former England managing director Paul Downton was handed the reins of the club as part of a move on from the antiquated committee and bring a better structure to the club.

“Things might have been different if Paul had have come in earlier,” admits Northeast, whose departure was confirmed a month later. “But it [Northeast’s mind] was already made up by then. Paul Downton has made a huge impact and probably what was needed. It looks like they’re having the best season there for a long time.”

By the end, Northeast’s challenges with the committee had started to drain him: “You never really trusted the process. You didn’t feel they were going to get it right at the end of the day because they weren’t around the team, they weren’t paid to go in and spend time to run the cricket. They’re not really there and a lot of them, it’s been a long time since they’ve been involved, playing wise.

“A load of clubs have done this [moved on from cricket committees]. That’s why it was a very obvious decision to go that way. For ages, this Kent side had some very talented players there. And all it took was to get the hierarchy at the top right to be successful on the pitch. They’re obviously doing really nicely now under Walks and Allan Donald (Kent’s assistant coach). Joe Denly has come in skippering and playing unbelievably well in Bilbo’s (Billings’) absence and they have made some shrewd signings as well.”

One of Northeast’s complaints during his time was the inability of the committee to help get signings over the line. It is one of those failed investments, South African batsman Heino Kuhn, which Downton and Billings were able to resurrect and bring to the club on a Kolpak deal. Shrewd doesn’t do it justice: Kuhn has scored 664 List A runs this summer, with four centuries in the last five innings to take Kent to the final.

While the merits of Kuhn, Denly, Billings and Darren Stevens are clear, Hampshire skipper Vince has tapped up Northeast for a rundown on those lesser known in the Kent side. One player in particular highlighted, who Northeast happens to have the longest relationship with, is Alex Blake – the finisher whose cameo of 61 in the semi-final against Worcestershire gave Kent the shot in the arm to eventually get over the line.

“I played with Blakey at age group level all the way up. From about ten, 11. That’ll be strange to play against him. When he first started out, he used to be an all-rounder. Bowled good pace, actually. Then he just turned into a bat and he’s seriously dangerous. I’ve played some knocks with him and he’s so clean a ball-striker. He’ll take a game away from anyone. He’ll be one of a few key wickets. It’s great to see him playing with such freedom.”

For now, Northeast’s workload is lighter and his goals are clearer. But for that busted finger, obtained at the worst possible time when it looked like a maiden Championship hundred for Hampshire – 129 against Surrey at the Oval in April – was the start of a charge towards Test selection, the chance to focus on number one is welcome. The crux of being a great batsman is rooted in selfishness and being able to indulge that, Northeast believes, has put him in a better place. He managed 58 in Hampshire’s semi against Yorkshire and looked in good order for 41 against Lancashire in the first innings of their recent draw at Old Trafford.

“Playing now, I feel there definitely is less pressure going into a Lord’s final. I don’t have to worry about decision making, teams, what we’re going to do, bat or bowl first – all the added stress that comes with it. As a captain, you always feel stress for losing games and at the moment I don’t. I can go and play a gameon Saturdayand just express myself with the bat and let Vincey worry about all the decisions!”

Naturally, he’ll be on the receiving end of Kent’s army of fans – one he could rely upon to life him and his charges in the past. He expects nothing less, especially now that he primarily fields in the deep for Hampshire: “I used to be able to get away with it in the ring and captaining!”

Going up against players that were once teammates, many of whom are still friends. Jeered by supporters who once chanted “Northeast For England” with as much passion as the national anthem. It will all add to the surreal nature of the occasion on Saturday. Even for a calculated mind such as Northeasts’, there will be an adjustment when he first walks out alongside his former teammates. Moreover, England head coach Trevor Bayliss will be watching in the stands as part of his tour of county cricket during his time-off for the T20 stretch of the international summer.

The narratives are set out for Northeast, one by one. But he’s not biting.

“It was always going to be strange and the first game against them is a Lord’s final! I don’t quite know what to make of it. In some ways, it’s about going out there and enjoying it. You want to be playing in these games and making an impact. I’ve got a perfect opportunity to do that this weekend. Not to worry about the storylines.”

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